Natalie Z. Davis Critical Essays

Introduction

Natalie Z. Davis 1928-

(Full name Natalie Zemon Davis) American novelist, historian, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Davis's career through 2002.

A pioneer in the field of social history, Davis is known for her reconstructions of the lives of ordinary individuals—merchants, artisans, and peasants—in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Her best-known books are Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1975) and The Return of Martin Guerre (1983).

Biographical Information

Davis was born Natalie Zemon on November 8, 1928, in Detroit, Michigan, to Julian Leon and Helen Lamport Zemon. Davis credits her father's example for her own decision to become a writer; a prosperous businessman in the textile industry, he had an impressive library and wrote plays for amateur theatrical groups and for the USO during World War II. Davis attended public elementary school in her suburban Detroit neighborhood and a private girls' high school, Kingswood, where she was one of two Jewish students in her class of 30. After graduation, she enrolled in the history honors program at Smith College where she became active in a number of left-wing political groups. In 1948, a year before her graduation from Smith, she eloped with Chandler Davis, a graduate student at Harvard who came from a family of New England Quaker left-wing intellectuals. Although his parents both earned Ph.D.s, the family had little money, in contrast to the Zemon family, who disapproved of the match. Although she risked expulsion from Smith for marrying without permission, Davis was nonetheless permitted to graduate with her class, earning a B.A. in history. The next year, she received an M.A. from Radcliffe and accompanied her husband to the University of Michigan where he taught mathematics and she pursued a Ph.D. Their activism against the Korean War drew the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and resulted in his dismissal from the university and imprisonment for six months in the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut. During this time, Davis taught at Brown University, the first of many teaching posts she held during her career.

In 1952 Davis made her first visit to France and the following year she completed her doctoral exams; she received her Ph.D. in 1959. Meanwhile, the couple had three children: Aaron, Hannah, and Simone. Blacklisted at universities in the United States, Davis's husband joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1962 and the family relocated to Canada. Davis began teaching at the University of Toronto a year later. In 1971, she accepted a professorship at the University of California-Berkeley, and in 1978 became the Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton University. She is currently professor emeritus at Princeton and adjunct professor of history at the University of Toronto. She maintains homes in both Toronto and Princeton, New Jersey.

Major Works

Davis's works combine rigorous scholarship with popular appeal and tend to blur the distinctions between various disciplines, particularly history and anthropology, as well as the distinctions between various literary genres, particularly social history and biography. She concentrates on the lives of common people rather than the elite; typically her subjects are artisans, laborers, minor clerics, and peasants rather than aristocrats or bishops. Her first book, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, is a collection of essays on subjects ranging from the collective movement among journeyman printers, to the establishment of an agency for poor relief, to the effect of religious change on urban women. The work established Davis's reputation as a pioneer social historian. Her next effort constituted her most popular success. After serving as a consultant on the film Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), a fictionalized account of a sixteenth-century peasant who left his village and had his identity assumed there by an imposter, Davis wrote the historical novel The Return of Martin Guerre, in which she attempts to fill in some of the gaps in the film version and to treat the story more as history than as fictional narrative. In 1987, she produced Fiction in the Archives, a collection of sixteenth-century letters written by convicted criminals in France hoping to have their sentences commuted. Davis adds her own commentary on the social and political significance of the letters, and analyzes differences in the style and content of letters written by women as opposed to those written by men. Women on the Margins (1995), tells the stories of three seventeenth-century women: a Jewish businesswoman in Germany, a Catholic missionary who co-founded a convent in Quebec, and a Protestant text illustrator in the Dutch colony of Suriname. In Davis's Slaves on Screen (2000), she returns to her interest in cinema; the work covers the representation of slaves in such popular films as Spartacus, Amistad, and Beloved. Also published in 2000, The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France is a study of the social and cultural meanings behind the exchange of gifts.

Critical Reception

Because Davis's work appeals to historians as well as the general public, her books are often reviewed in both scholarly journals and popular periodicals. Assessments of her work are mixed. Many fellow historians have praised her innovative work in the field of social history, including her treatment of the lives of ordinary citizens, or “history from below,” as it is sometimes called. Charmarie Jenkins Blaisdell commends Davis for giving voice to the men and women affected by the social and political changes taking place in the early modern world, people “who have been largely ignored because they left practically nothing in writing.” Richard Cobb, however, believes that in Davis's work “the people themselves are generally assigned a somewhat peripheral part, the author frequently intervening to interpret their thoughts, aspirations and actions for them, as though they could not always be trusted to speak for themselves.” Similar controversies surround The Return of Martin Guerre, with reviewer Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie praising it as a “major work of historical reconstruction,” and Robert Finlay contending that parts of the work appear to be “far more a product of invention than of historical reconstruction” particularly the character of Martin's wife, whom Davis turns into “a sort of proto-feminist of peasant culture.” While several scholars accuse Davis of excessive fictionalizing in her work, Jonathan Dewald maintains that the author “has sought to restore our direct contact with voices from the sixteenth century” and commends her collection of letters of remission, Fiction in the Archives, for accomplishing that purpose. The fiction to which the title refers exists within the letters themselves as petitioners tried to state their cases in the most favorable way possible. Addressing Davis's “innovative methodology,” Nancy L. Roelker explains that it consists of “finding linkages that others have overlooked, combining sociological, political, and legal aspects of history with literary analysis and psychological insights.”

Women on the Margins, while well received, also generated critical debate. Many critics, such as Anne Jacobson Schutte, praise the work for its eloquent treatment of the lives of three very different women, calling it “a marvelous read” for both scholars and the general public. Schutte expresses reservations, however, about Davis's treatment of one of her subject's relationship with the indigenous population of Suriname. Endowing the woman with “an unusually sympathetic view of indigenes in the Dutch colony strikes this reader as forcing possibilities beyond the margins of plausibility,” claims Schutte. Patricia Seed contends that since two of Davis's three subjects took part in the colonization of the Americas, their status as “women on the margins” must be viewed in relative terms. As white Europeans, these women were far more powerful than their counterparts among the indigenous population, contends Seed. Reviewers of The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France, draw attention to Davis's blurring of the usual distinctions between academic disciplines. Keith Thomas, for example, reports that “by applying anthropological theories of the gift to the understanding of history, Davis has illuminated the texture of social and personal relationships in sixteenth-century France.” Of her career as a whole, Peter N. Miller maintains that Davis “has been one of the most innovative historians working in North America in the past four decades. Without any self-promoting fanfare, Davis's works have set many of the fashions now followed by other historians.”